Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play. John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness. As he notes:
My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on. That’s simply not true. Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.
Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).
Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances. But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do. Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.
This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it. Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer. Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?
Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.
Not that anyone is paying attention, but Ghana’s next door neighbor Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast to my less cultured peeps) had an election last Sunday. Which was blatantly stolen by the current president on Friday, when it became clear that he was going to lose (again). History is repeating itself, but nobody seems to notice or care.
The seeds of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire were planted by Henri Bedie, who took power in 1993 largely by fiat (he declared himself president when the only president the country had known since independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, died). There was a brief power struggle between Bedie and Alassane Ouattara, then the prime minister. Why is that name interesting? Because he was the opposition candidate in last week’s election. Bedie was obviously concerned about running against Ouattara, and in 1995 managed to exclude Ouattara from candidacy for the presidency by changing electoral rules, effectively changing the citizenship rules of Cote d’Ivoire by arguing that Ouattara’s parents were from Burkina Faso, and therefore Ouattara could not be an Ivorian citizen. Of course, the fact that Ouattara had served as prime minister before was pushed to one side in this decision . . . In any case, this more or less effective change in citizenship rules (both parents have to be from Cote d’Ivoire for a person to be a citizen) became law in a hasty referendum right before the 2000 election, once again blocking Ouattara and basically disenfranchising many living in the northern part of the country, where movement across borders to Burkina, Mali, Northern Ghana and Guinea is quite common. Combine this with the fact that the north of the country is heavily Muslim, with a dominantly Christian and Animist south (a common situation across West Africa), and you have a perfect storm – religion, ethnicity and citizenship all aligning, with one group getting nothing and one group gaining everything. Bedie was deposed in a coup in 1999, at least in part over ethnic tensions that played out into the military, but this did not seem to teach anyone anything. In 2000, Laurent Gbagbo won election as president by continuing this exclusionary process. Two years later, civil war broke out.
So, after three years of power-sharing under a unity government, and an election meant to reunify the country, what did Gbagbo’s people do this time? Oh, the Constitutional Council (run by Gbagbo’s friends) just annulled ALL OF THE RESULTS from the seven regions in the north of the country, which was obviously going to vote heavily for Ouattara. Gbagbo’s friends didn’t challenge a few ballots, or a few polling places, or demand a recount of the votes. Nope. They just voided the ENTIRE NORTH OF THE COUNTRY due to “irregularities” (read: voting for Ouattara). You know what’s really funny, though? Even after voiding Ouattara’s strongest supporters, Gbagbo’s people could only claim that their man won with 51% of the vote! Holy crap, he is barely loved in his own electoral stronghold!
Humorous and pathetic though this result might be, this probably just cost Cote d’Ivoire three years of slow progress toward reconciliation, and could be the trigger for more conflict. Looks like the French military is going to have to get back to work in there . . . ugh.
But there is an important lesson here – this is a conflict that has an ethnic component, but it is not an ancient ethnic conflict that is unresolvable. Ethnicity was, by and large, a nonissue in Cote d’Ivoire from independence to 1993. The same might be said of religion. It was not until political leaders decided that these differences were useful political tools that they were mobilized into drivers of conflict. There are clear villains in this story, and clear pathways to reconciliation and resolution – this conflict is only 17 years old, and it comes after three decades of coexistence without major issues. This is not a quagmire – it is a place where these issues can be resolved, and where guilty parties can be identified and brought to justice. There is plenty of hope for Cote d’Ivoire – just look at how the country could come together around its Soccer National Team (Les Éléphants – how I love that nickname), and how much power players like Didier Drogba have in the country. That team was a major factor in the formation of a unity government in 2007, and even today people will listen to Drogba, a man who wants the conflict to end. Someone please get him the tools he needs to make it end before it all turns bad again . . .